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House committee backs patient protection

The bill has one more committee stop before the full House votes on it.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- With the Republican-controlled House and Senate heading toward gridlock on HMO reform, House Republicans held a news conference Thursday to put the best spin on their plan and to congratulate one another on coming up with "real reform."

"Progressive," was the adjective repeatedly used to describe the plan. "A great step," said another.

The major difference between the two chambers is that Senate Republicans want to allow patients to sue health maintenance organizations for punitive damages when care is improperly denied, while House Republicans adamantly oppose an expansion of the right to sue.

The House plan closely mirrors an HMO industry-supported plan put forth by Associated Industries, the most powerful business lobby in the capital. That's as it should be, according to Rep. Tom Feeney, an Oviedo Republican in line to become House speaker next year.

"Sixty-three percent of Floridians have insurance only because their employers provide it," Feeney said. "It would be the height of irresponsibility to ignore" their concerns.

Cracking down hard on HMOs may make for "great sound bites on the campaign trail," Feeney said, but good public policy demands that lawmakers ensure that new regulations don't drive up costs and increase the number of uninsured Floridians.

"This bill is very carefully crafted not to throw any health insurance providers out of business," Feeney said. "That's what some proposals would do."

On a strictly partisan vote, the House "Patient Protection Act of 2000" passed the Health Care Licensing and Regulation Committee on Thursday, with Democrats saying voters won't be fooled come November. "Calling it the Patient Protection Act is ludicrous," said Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs.

Republicans, however, said patients will benefit. "It doesn't fix everything, but it is a step in the right direction," said Rep. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami.

The bill, crafted over the last week, has one more committee stop before the full House votes on it. The committee recommended taking the unusual step of closing the bill, meaning that it would not be subject to amendment. If that happens, Republicans would not have to cast a vote against Democratic attempts to add the right to sue HMOs -- a vote that Democratic opponents undoubtedly would have tried to use against them in November's elections.

The House plan does include several important measures that will protect patients, said Sandy Mortham, a lobbyist for the Florida Medical Association. Although the FMA supports a right to sue, Mortham said that "anybody that's been involved in this process knows there's an art of compromise."

The House plan would ensure that HMO doctors with clean medical records will be assigned the job of deciding whether medical services should be covered. It would force the doctor to sign off on the decision. The Senate is also considering a similar proposal.

Both the House and Senate plans would also ensure that hospitalized patients could continue to see their own doctor, rather than be turned over to a doctor unfamiliar with their history. The House plan also takes steps to better inform medical consumers of their rights.

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